I wanted to have a look at the big fairs in the south of France. Beziers, Montpellier and Avignon, three major international events all in a line along the coast from Languedoc to Provence. Prices were reported to be high but I needed to see for myself and, for a first time visit, it seemed a good idea to team up with a transporter rather than drive my van down.
I also wanted to revisit old memories. I’d spent a year in Provence when I was twenty, teaching English to spirited teenagers in a school in Arles. On one occasion as I turned to use the black board I found a lizard in the chalk box, to much sniggering from the back of the class. The lizard made a fast getaway down the corridor.
I loved the French school lunches: heaped helpings of sauercraut, endless grated carrot salad and grated celeriac salads! Sun-baked narrow streets, shutters at every window, the Saturday markets along the Boulevard des Lices, olives and ripe peaches, learning to jive, being romanced in a restaurant in St Remy de Provence, and first trips to Venice, Nice and Florence in a rattley Renault 4. This might sound so clichéd, but it all deeply touched my spirit.
I zipped off the autoroute from Nimes into Arles and my first glimpse of the town after thirty seven years, was a square full of stark silver-white plane trees reaching up into a vivid blue sky like so many dancing Spanish women, branches pollarded, the blessing of broad shady leaves yet to arrive.
Coming from a spell of March blizzards and baby lambs frozen in snow drifts, this was all gloriously vibrant to my bewintered soul. The Roman town had changed only superficially – more cafes and restaurants and visitors – but beneath that, there remained the café painted by Van Gogh in the Place du Forum (Café de la Nuit), the Roman ruins, the cutting light slicing into the gloom of St Triophime. As always I found myself compelled to photograph shutters and ancient doorways.
Down by the Rhone I came to a large Antiquités and Brocante shop with old white rusty garden furniture outside to lure me in. Every surface and every heavy beam was laden with goods. There were dusty ceramics in chicken-wire fronted armoires, oil paintings, carvings, statues, chandeliers, rush seated Provencal chairs stacked in rows. In his office sat Monsieur, silver haired, tanned, in a bright orange polo shirt and navy blue cardigan. Unsure of where to pitch my expectations, I hesistantly enquired about prices and that I had heard that the south was very expensive. “Ah, vous me faites rire!!” his arms were thrown up in a dramatic gesture – you make me laugh, but prices everywhere are expensive, and the problem now is where to find the good merchandise!
This dealer organised a Salon des Antiquaires in Arles every year – I will send you an invitation, he promised. We haggled over two rather nice Provencal oil paintings, one of a church facade and one a still life of oranges. I had to remain mindful that only the capacity of a small car boot was available until I met up with my transporter. Around a corner, up another narrow ancient street I found myself wandering into a Brocante. I’d seen a bundle of large monogrammed napkins in the window – they wouldn’t take up much room. The dealer greeted me and indicating the two paintings under my arm said, “Je vois que vous avez deja fait des achats” – I see you have already made some purchases – might I permit myself to ask if I can see what you have bought?
Off came the bubble wrap and each picture was viewed in turn. “Ah yes, this is charming,” he said. turning to show the still life to a man who had just come into the shop. “And you must go and see my wife”, said the latter, “our shop is just around the corner on the way to Les Arenes.” Agreeable exchanges, always enjoyable. I found Madame outside her shop in a patch of sunlight, dandling her dark eyed grand-daughter, tiny gold hoops in her ears and a beatific gummy smile. The shop was cool, under stone vaults, and I found a couple of tin glaze white bowls to put in my bag.